By ERWIN CHLANDA
Two significant questions remain about the police response on the night when the manager of the tennis centre, Matt Roberts, was under siege by an armed mob threatening to kill him: How long did it take 000 to get through to the police, and how long did it take for the police to despatch a unit to the scene?
New police Commander in Alice Springs, Kate Vanderlaan, who has served in Alice Springs for several years previously, says she will get answers. She contests Mr Robert’s account, saying police in Darwin had answered the call from him in no more that 53 seconds. “Certainly he was not put on hold for 46 minutes, as some people have said,” she says.
Mr Roberts says he received no help from the police for 46 minutes, was kept on hold by 000 for much of that time, and the mob had already left when police finally arrived. “I have never claimed to have been on hold for 46 minutes” – and neither had the Alice Springs News report asserted that.
Mr Roberts says Cdr Vanderlaan is playing games with words: “OK, if I wasn’t on hold, what was I on? I was in limbo. I was on the phone for a total of 23 minutes on two calls, listening to the operator saying ‘won’t be long now’ or ‘hang in there’. The fact is no police arrived for 46 minutes and when they came the mob had just gone. Kate is more worried about dancing around the facts than about me and the kids. That makes me sick and that attitude should send shivers throughout the town.”
About Mr Roberts’ claim that the 000 operator had asked him “In which state is Alice Springs?” Commander Vanderlaan says: “That question was not asked by the police call taker.” The News has asked Telstra whether one of their 000 operators asked the question.
Mr Roberts remains adamant that it was asked: “It was during my second call to 000. It was like a slap in my face. I can still remember where I was standing when I heard it. It’s like remembering where you were when you heard about 9/11 or the shooting of President Kennedy.”
When you make a 000 call from Alice Springs you get an operator in a Telstra call centre in Perth. The operator will direct the call to police, fire or ambulance in the appropriate location.
Mr Roberts’ call for help was directed by 000 – which he says answered after about eight rings – to police HQ in Darwin. HQ is in direct contact with police units on duty in Alice Springs, and assigns “jobs” to cops on patrol, usually without talking to anyone in the Alice Springs police station.
“The despatch unit is in direct contact with members on the road,” says Cdr Vanderlaan. “When the Alice units book on they are booking on in Darwin. The computer banks tell the despatch people which units are available. They have to book on and off for each job.”
Cdr Vanderlaan may well be right that once a police line and a police operator became available, the call from 000 was answered quickly, but Mr Roberts’ complaint is about the entire handling of his 000 calls, not just the police end of them.
Cdr Vanderlaan says all 000 calls in Australia go to Telstra call centres first, either in Perth or Sydney.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: You have to talk to Telstra about how the system works.
NEWS: Are you happy with it?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, there is never any delay. If I ring 000 now it will go immediately to Perth, they will say what’s your emergency and it will go to Darwin. The issue was, when there are no lines available then it gets re-directed back to Perth and then they will send it back. And that’s why, as I explained on the radio, it’s impossible to be put on hold for 46 minutes if you ring 000.
But … that can mean that you are in limbo for that time, as Mr Roberts put it – and most people would find that unacceptable.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: When there is no line available [the call] gets re-directed back to Telstra until a line becomes vacant.
NEWS: Why can’t it go to Alice Springs?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Because the call centre is in Darwin.
NEWS: Is that a good thing, for the call centre to be in Darwin?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, for efficiency.
NEWS: Do you have the time intervals from the 000 call being made by Mr Roberts and Darwin answering?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get those details for you.
NEWS: But you listened to the recording?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, I listened to the recording of the conversation between Mr Roberts and our call taker, not Telstra’s.
NEWS: The durations we quoted in our report were completely wrong?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes. It’s impossible for someone to be put on hold. He was mistaken about what putting on hold means. Being put on hold means, you answering the phone and saying ‘I put you on hold’. Our call takers would never do that. They are not allowed to put 000 people on hold. Once the call was able to be put on a line to Darwin it was no more than 53 seconds before it was answered. The longest a 000 call [took] to be answered was 53 seconds. Quoting 46 minutes is completely wrong.
NEWS: How long did it take 000 to obtain a line to Darwin?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get those details for you.
NEWS: That’s where it starts to add up.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, but it could add up in any place. I don’t know. We can’t answer that because we don’t know how long it took for a line to become available.
NEWS: It depends on the number of police lines and police operators, doesn’t it?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes.
NEWS: So more police lines and more police operators would make the system quicker. 000 wouldn’t have to wait for a line.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes. That’s the case with everything. If we had more police we’d be more responsive. It’s all relative.
NEWS: Did the call bounce back to 000 a number of times because there was no line available?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: That could have happened.
NEWS: It is unknown how many times it was re-directed.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Yes, that is unknown. I’ll try and find out from Telstra. It would not have been 46 minutes, that’s for sure. Once the members were dispatched to that job they got there within a couple of minutes.
NEWS: How long did it take the Darwin call centre to find an available unit? Mr Roberts’ first conversation with the Darwin police did not result in a despatch of a unit.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll get that information for you.
NEWS: There are two gaps, one is how long did it take 000 to get a line to Darwin, and secondly, how long it took the police in Darwin to get an available unit.
Cdr VANDERLAAN: Sometimes that does create delays and we don’t deny that. They are involved in other work, other jobs, there could be a priority on but they are trying to get someone there immediately. They could have been tied up with other jobs. Certainly he was not put on hold for 46 minutes.
NEWS: He was waiting for 46 minutes – isn’t that possible? What was the time span from 000 getting the first call from Mr Roberts to the first unit arriving at the tennis centre?
Cdr VANDERLAAN: I’ll look into that and let you know.
PHOTO: Mr Roberts in the tennis club room where he was under siege and phoned 000.
By ERWIN CHLANDA